Top 10 cads in fiction | Charlotte Vassell

Dangerously handsome young men carelessly ruining women’s lives are a rarer breed than they were. But their hatefulness still makes compelling reading

You don’t see many cads in the wild any more: they are, perhaps, an extinct species. This staple of the 19th-century novel is a rare figure in mainstream literature these days. Undoubtedly if I looked hard enough, I would find a subculture of spicy contemporary rogues – tweet me your picks – but in this instance I am concerned with the noxious products of class and odiously outdated sexual politics that make me thankful to live in an age where I can get a credit card without my husband’s permission.

Dangerously handsome young men with more money than sense, often a dubious connection to empire, and maybe even a title, just don’t seem to be drinking and gambling their fortunes in London gentlemen’s clubs or ruining the lives of young maidens today. And why should they be? Women now get degrees and mortgages, and premarital sex won’t destroy their social standing. A one-night stand with a slightly Byronic posho is just a funny story to tell your friends, a trip to Boots for the morning-after pill, or at worst an outing to your local underfunded and understaffed sexual health clinic.

I adore (or rather, I love to hate) a good cad. I was one of those teenagers who was so awkward that they retreated into a fantasy world, and my chosen escape was to a world of balls and muslin dresses. I was a sad little Austenite. I still am. I even write novels where the antagonist, Rupert Beauchamp, is a terrible Wodehousian wanker with a title, a fortune which his ancestors grabbed during the Raj, and a very good motive for murdering his Instagram-influencer girlfriend. Below, with a few spoilers, are some of Rupert’s literary ancestors, whom I love to hate. Really, really hate.

1. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
At least a third of all of Austen’s male characters are cads. There’s a plethora of bounders to choose from (I almost chose icky Wickham, with his penchant for seducing impressionable 15-year-old girls), but to my mind Willoughby is the worst. Willoughby is a man of romantic sentiment, a man of sensibility, but he has neither the good sense nor the common decency to avoid impregnating teenagers. Serves him right having to marry for money when his aunt, who is rightfully appalled by his behaviour, cuts him off. He’ll still be wealthy, I suppose, but at least he won’t be that happy. Marianne, you were always going to be better off without him hun!

2. Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
I haven’t let Wickham off entirely. This is partly in honour of Hugh Grant’s selfless service to the romance genre. Daniel Cleaver is an equivalent if not slightly tamer cad, as Bridget Jones’s Diary is a modernisation of Pride and Prejudice. Cleaver cheats on Bridget – a woman who writes her “conventionally attractive” weight at the beginning of every diary entry – with an even more “conventionally attractive” woman.

3. Rupert Campbell-Black in Riders by Jilly Cooper
Rupert is awful, well and truly awful. He is the literal worst, and yet he was the object of many a fantasy when Riders was first published. He sleeps with 99.99% of women he comes across. He doesn’t seduce two, because one of them has too much sense and the other one is a size 18 so he’s not interested. His wife’s only faults are being way too into Laura Ashley home decor and being American, but he cheats on her constantly, with his stable-hands, society heiresses and even a woman he meets a church fete. He then orchestrates his wife’s rape because he thinks she’s a bit frigid during a foursome that she’s been bullied into with his best friend and his wife. This is after he has given her gonorrhoea. There is also some showjumping in the book, which may come in useful for watching the horsey bits at the next Olympics.

4. Simon Doyle in Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Christie wrote a lot of cads – especially those on the hunt for a fortune by any means. Their superficial charm lulling unsuspecting women, and readers, into a dangerous, false sense of security. In Death on the Nile, the charismatic Simon Doyle hastily breaks off his engagement with Jacqueline and marries her wealthy friend Linnet. One of Christie’s greatest novels, it has a bitter jilted lover, a seemingly perfect husband and, of course, a vain little Belgian.

Leigh Lawson as Alec and Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film version.
Bad things in mind … Leigh Lawson as Alec and Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film version. Photograph: Columbia/Allstar

5. Alec D’Urberville in Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Alec is the louche son of a recently wealthy tradesman who attacks our heroine who has gone to “claim kin” after accidentally killing her family’s only horse. A good rule for life is to never trust nouveau riche people who take it upon themselves to change their surname to a more aristocratic sounding one. They do bad things. I’m glad Tess stabs Alec through the heart.

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film of The Great Gatsby.
Midwestern monster … Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan in the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

6. Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Tom, horrendously wealthy midwesterner, polo player and white supremacist is one of Fitzgerald’s most repugnant creations. I take comfort that Fitzgerald based him on his first love’s husband – petty literary-based romantic revenge at its best.

7. James Steerforth in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Steerforth starts out with promise. He’s David Copperfield’s protector at Salem House – more proof that emotional neglect in boarding schools breeds cads – but ends up seducing David’s beloved Emily, before abandoning her in Europe having promised her a life of luxury. Dickens has the decency to drown Steerforth, and Emily gets to make a fair go of it in Australia.

8. Henry Wilcox in Howards End by EM Forster
A rare example of a partially reformed cad. Henry Wilcox, a man who made a fortune pillaging Nigeria for resources, seduces the young Jacky (later Bast) in Cyprus 10 years before the action of the novel. He regrets his behaviour and is truly changed after his son gets convicted of manslaughter for killing Jacky’s husband, now-impoverished owing to a terrible piece of business advice. Margaret Schlegel is too good for him.

9. Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede by George Eliot
Arthur seduces the beautiful but shallow Hetty Sorrel, gets in a fight with her fiance and agrees to leave his regiment. Hetty becomes pregnant by him, exposes her newborn to the elements and is due to hang for it. Arthur reappears deus ex machina and gets her sentence commuted to transportation to Australia.

10. William Rackham in The Crimson Petal and the White
William, pompous and comfortable heir to a perfume business, is convinced of his literary genius and revels in his caddish ways. At home he has a small daughter whom he ignores and a delicate Victorian doll of a wife whose grasp of reality is hanging by a thread. In a flat in another part of London he has Sugar, an intelligent prostitute whom he bought from her madame. Rackham gets his comeuppance in the most satisfying way.

• This article was amended on 22 and 23 February 2023 to correct a misspelling of the name d’Urberville, and to clarify that in Jilly Cooper’s Riders, it is gonorrhoea that Rupert Campbell-Black gives to his wife, not chlamydia.

• The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell is published by Faber. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

Charlotte Vassell

The GuardianTramp

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